Offering some of the best dishes from around the world, The Latin Quarter has quickly found its place in the Phnom Penh restaurant scene. Michael Sloane talks to the team behind the captial’s “Little Havana”. Photographs by Dylan Walker.
The wooden sign outside The Latin Quarter spells out exactly how far the restaurant lies from Havana, 17,000 kilometres away, and Caracas, a more modest 13,000 km.
For the restaurant’s co-managers, Rodrigo Maza from Mexico and Uruguay national Diego Wilkins, it represents two things: a determination to create a slice of Latin America in Phnom Penh, and a personal reminder that they’re a long way from home.
The successor to the now defunct Pacharan, the Latin Quarter opened in December. Its formula of picking the best of Spanish and Latin American food and drink – from Argentinean wines, to Spanish chorizo and Cuban cigars – is quickly winning it repeat business.
“We’re trying to bring the best of every culture and mix it,” says Maza. “We are not limited to doing food from one country, there are so many we can play with.”
Housed in a colonial villa at the junction of Streets 178 and 19, the restaurant’s faded yellow walls are lined with paintings by Cuban artist Juan Valdes. Its décor was intended to create a “little Havana vibe”, says owner Steve Haywood, who recruited Maza and Wilkins to manage the new venture.
The pair, who met in July after both working at Michelin-starred restaurants in China and London, are in firm agreement that the eatery should serve classic home-cooked food in a casual atmosphere.
“In Spanish, we say ‘mi casa es su casa’. It’s like saying ‘welcome to our home: your home’,” says Maza.
“Dining here is about feeling relaxed, and that feeling’s in the food. We have Mexican ceviche, Milanesa Napolitana done in Uruguayan style, South American tapas. The other day Diego created this beautiful scallop carpacchio with vanilla and olive oil – it’s not on the menu yet but it will be soon.”
The restaurant’s menu includes sub-$10 tapas staples, including meatballs and chorizo. But the stand-out feature is the specials board, which displays more elaborate dishes and changes regularly.
“The idea is you play on the board. You are not limited. If you find good fish, you put it on there. If you find a good grilled sirloin steak with mashed potatoes, you can put it on. You have a menu, but every day you do not know what will happen to it – that’s the idea, it’s a surprise,” says Wilkins.
The creation of The Latin Quarter has led to a close bond between the managers, says Maza. His background in Mexican cooking complements Wilkins’ knowledge of Uruguayan cuisine.
“Diego’s great in the kitchen and we work really good together. Nothing will get approved if both of us don’t agree. Diego and me are working like brothers,” he says.